New Orleans native talks about family struggles after Katrina

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Charelle Strahan’s grandmother, Ruby Irene, will never be counted among Hurricane Katrina’s official 1400-plus casualties. She died in February 2006, six months after the storm had passed, but as her granddaughter puts it, it was the storm and its aftermath that “shut her insides down.”

At Katrina’s six-month mark, the rest of the nation’s attention had just begun to wane, but many residents of the most devastated areas of New Orleans had not even made it back into the city to assess their losses. Those who had were just starting a years-long marathon of rebuilding that continues today.

Now, at the four-year mark, there are still so many stories that have yet to be told, and a thousand Katrina anniversaries won’t be enough to tell every one. As the epic nature of that tragedy dwarfed the ordinary dramas that continue to tear at the fabric of people’s lives, what in normal circumstances would have been considered extraordinary for any one person to endure is now mostly remarkable for fitting every by now familiar Katrina narrative:

While Charelle, a Marine Reservist, was stationed in Iraq, the Strahan family home in New Orleans was washed away. After being rescued off of a bridge and brought to the Superdome, her family members dispersed in different directions — some siblings to Atlanta, others to Houston, where her mother still remains four years later. Her elderly grandmother, who helped raise her and her siblings, suffered from mild dementia – a condition made far worse by the storm, and from which she never recovered. And because Charelle didn’t own property in New Orleans, and because it was a grandparent, not a parent, who was ill, she was not granted leave to come home until spring of 2006.

With little means of direct communication with her family during that time, Charelle felt doubly displaced. “There weren’t many people around me able to relate” she recalled during a recent interview. “All we knew was what we saw on CNN.” She found herself in a position of having to defend her home town, even while she was away defending her home country.

Since then, signs of recovery have been slow in coming, but recently they became more tangible when Habitat for Humanity helped Charelle’s sister get back into a home of her own in the Lower Ninth Ward. “My question is, why, with all those millions of dollars going down there, did it take so long?”

Now a resident of Brooklyn, Charelle still smiles without a trace of bitterness when she talks about her childhood memories and her recent plans to visit her hometown. “Maybe someday, when I’m done exploring the world, I’ll buy a little house of my own and settle down,” she says. “In New Orleans.”